Saturday, December 19, 2015

Parenting: Higher Expectations, Less Failing

Early on in motherhood, I had this sneaking suspicion my son was actually much more capable than I was told he was. I also really didn’t want to raise a child who thought he wasn’t capable, so I figured the best way around that was to just treat him as if he were.  This attitude towards parenting is entirely different than overt and excessive praise, extreme statements such as “you’re the best at eating baby cereal!” and engaging my child in a host of extracurricular activities so he can develop his ‘full potential.’

An attitude of capability is instead one that says “ I believe you can, even if you don’t and can’t yet, and I’ll keep believing that you can until you prove otherwise.” It’s an attitude that starts from a position of ‘yes’ or an excited/hopeful ‘maybe!’ rather than a position of  scared/uncomfortable ‘maybe’ or ‘no’.

I’m not the ‘vivid memory’ type, but I distinctly remember a moment where I chose to engage with a ‘yes’ attitude: I was standing in line at a WellsFargo in Pasadena, CA when my son was about 14 months old. I had a piece of trash in my hand, and the garbage can was on the other side of the large room; I handed the piece of trash to my son and said, in a tone of voice as if I were talking to an adult, “can you please go throw this away? The garbage can is across the room, to the left of the coffee stand. It’s black and has a hole in the top.” He took the trash and began toddling away.

A woman looked at me, eyebrows raised, and said in a fairly condescending tone, “don’t you think that’s a bit much?” Now, in my retrospective version of this scene, I say “I just want to say thank you so much for using your ‘no’ attitude with me and my parenting. I feel super supported in young motherhood right now. Not that I need your support, I mean, I totally know what I’m doing. This little fellow came out with a manual.” But I didn’t say any of that. I watched my son toddle confidently away from me, and simply said, “Maybe. We’ll see.”

My vivid memory stops there. I like to think he made it to the garbage can without any assistance, but the point is, it didn’t actually matter. What mattered is I believed maybe he could and he trusted my belief. I gave him a chance to try, and whatever happened next I do know I told him thank you, and that he did such a good job. "Thank you for trying, thank you for helping me, thank you for being brave and walking across this great big room full of strangers, thank you for exploring, and for trusting me when I said “try.”" 

Having higher expectations of our children does not mean asking them to do things children shouldn’t be expected to do like mediate parental conflict, walk themselves to the bus before they are ready, grasp the painful realities of conflict and injustice that permeate our world, or whatever else they clearly aren’t ready to do. Having higher expectation means we let our children show us what they are ready to do before we jump to ‘no’. Higher expectation means we don’t draw the limit of their capabilities without asking for their participation in the process. Higher expectation means choosing to absorb some of the fall-out so they can miss the mark and recognize they have room to grow.

If our children are raised with a ‘no’ mentality ascribed to them, they will have a ‘no’ mindset towards themselves. Even more seriously, if they are raised in an environment where missing the mark is considered a failure, they will be afraid to try, and will assume there is one right way to do something. When there is only one right way to do something, our children stop being curious.

As a gentle aside, I would suggest many of us as adults have concluded there is one right way to do many things, and are subsequently void of curiosity. And I would also suggest an absence of curiosity quickly morphs into fear – and unfortunately, the fear is what our children pick up on most quickly, and embrace as their own, even though it feels such a stranger in their ready-to-explore-and-risk little beings. An absorbed ‘no’ mindset results in these self-conclusions: I am not good enough, the risk is bigger than my potential to recover from or overcome it, someone has the right answer and it’s not me, and so I am so afraid.

Our children will fail, they’ll fail big. How do I know? Well, mine already have, and even more so – I have. I’ve failed huge, fails that take years to begin healing into change and growth. My intent in writing this chapter is not to suggest failures are only opportunities. While I believe just about anything can be redeemed, I also know that sometimes failure just looks like, smells like, tastes like, and feels like failure. Full stop.

But, our children don’t need help recognizing their failures. The world, starting at a very, very young age, has already started labeling their missing the mark as ‘failures full stop.’ You know this is true, because the world has done it to you and me, too (and if we’re honest, sometimes we’re ‘the world’ in this scenario).

But from us, from their parents, our children don’t need help recognizing failure; they need opportunities to try and not succeed. And not succeeding must not be defined as failure, but instead embraced as learning and applauded as courageous curiosity. They need to fall, literally and figuratively. They need to fight, to hurt others (hopefully not too literally) and to be hurt. They need to pour their own milk and cover the floor with it (you can make that as analogous as you want).

And then, absolutely then, they need to be scooped up, told they did well not in spite of missing the mark, but because they tried. They must be taught how to look back and see where micro-goals were met, even when the macro-goals remained elusive. When my babies were little, up until they were about 4, many of our post-injury or post-conflict hugs ended with me setting them on their feet, and with arms still supporting their weight, whispering in their ear, “strong feet, brave heart.”

We have to engage in the world with strong feet and brave heart – to be steady, and know who we are, to have enough confidence in what we know to be true of ourselves that when we fall we know our brave heart will remind our feet just how strong they are. And when our brave hearts quake at the prospects looming ahead, our strong feet will, out of sheer habit, begin walking just in the direction we need to go.

This mindset doesn’t begin in adolescence, or even grade school – it begins in infancy and takes root in toddler years, and I promise it begins to bloom right before your very eyes by the time they are 2.5-3. It’s subtle, like an early spring bloom still hidden by wet leaves from the past fall, but it begins to happen.

Now that my kids are a bit older, we’ve begun to shift a bit towards the next step in this lesson: defining success and accepting our short-comings with intentionality. My son came home from KG the other day and announced, “sometimes kids say mean things to me.” The conversation continued like this:

Me: “yeah? That stinks. What do they say?”
Kai: “they said my drawing was bad.”
Me: “Huh…what did you think of your drawing?”
Kai: “It was bad.”
Me: “Oh. Does it bother you it was bad?” (note – I opted out of the conversation on who defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’, especially when it comes to kg art)
Kai: “No. Not really. I don’t like drawing.”
Me: “Ok. Well, it makes sense to me that if you don’t like drawing, you probably didn’t spent much time on it, right?”
Kai: “yeah”
Me: “if you didn’t spend much time on it, do you think it should be good?”
Kai: “no.”
Me: “well, maybe it’s ok to not have a good drawing. In fact, maybe it’s ok to do a bad drawing, especially if you don’t like drawing. Are there other things you like doing and are good at?”
Kai: “yeah, I’m really good in PE. I usually win the games”
Me: “that’s awesome. Maybe next time the kids say your drawing is bad, you could just shrug and let them know you know, and that it’s ok with you because it’s not something you want to spend a lot of time on. And maybe someday you will want to spend a lot of time on it, but for today, it’s ok to not be good at drawing. I’m not good at physics, or at high jump – I don’t like those things, and so I don’t spend much time on them.”
Kai: “yeah, ok. That’s fine.”

And so we push towards this lesson more and more – you take part in deciding which goals you want to pursue, that you should set high expectations for yourself, and it will take hard work to meet them. 

Step one of the lesson: I am worth a ‘yes’. 
Step two: Missing the mark means I tried, and that’s so good. 
Step three: I get to choose what the goal is, and I choose how hard I work to get there. 
Step four: Step two is super important.

I’m not entirely sure what the next steps will be, but I’m pretty sure they have something to do with recognizing some expectations are determined by others and somewhat non-negotiable. For example: you simply should not get in a car with someone you don’t know. This is non-negotiable. You simply should not steal, or kill people, or say things that undermine the value of another human being. These are non-negotiable. But, at the same time, you get to choose if you make these expectations your own, or if you simply choose to follow the expectations out of fear, or ignore the expectations and endure the consequences of not meeting these expectations.

At this stage in the game, as my kids venture into the broader world and I’m no longer with them, I hope they have learned how to be curious with expectations – to weigh them for their intrinsic and extrinsic value, and intentionally align themselves with expectations of value while discarding all the rest. I surely won’t be able to teach them what their relationship should be to each and every expectation that comes their way from society, others, or even themselves. I’m still figuring out to do with the ones that come my way every day. But I can teach them their engagement with expectation is in fact a relationship, and they have a voice in it.

And I hope, when they come up against these expectations everyday, whether it’s an expectation to look a certain way, or say a certain unkind thing, or look the other way when injustice occurs, or to give up trying out for basketball because someone said they aren’t any good, or to pursue a certain career or life-style that puts a damper on their spirit, I hope deep in their beings, a little voice rises up, reminding them to have higher expectations but less failing as it assuredly whispers, “strong feet, brave heart.”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

parenting: spheres in orbit

An email draft I just began to my sons teacher left me in tears. The content was fairly straight forward: "my kid says he's a bit bored in class if he finishes an assignment early. Can I send in a workbook?" Writing it now, just moments later, it seems so simple and so straight forward. But as I typed the email, I found myself stumbling and bumbling over words in my head - my intentions being limited by my vernacular, my fears being flattened to a black and white 2D form where I could see their details more clearly than when they round and create their own shadows.

And then, a habit I've spent the past two years intentionally learning to form sprang to life without me knowing it. For the first time, without conscious effort or thought, I realized the truth driving the fears and the lies: I miss watching my son learn. I miss being his teacher. I miss being the one he enthusiastically reports his successes to.

I know I still do all of those things, and that in some degree I will as long as we're both breathing. But the reality is that for 7 1/2 hours a day, I have passed that baton to others. And as exhausting as the race of young motherhood is, and as much as I enjoy sacred moments such as these to do the things put aside for the past years, it is a bittersweet hand-off. And two months into this baton-passing, I realize my hand still shakes when I reach forward to pass it to the next runner in my son's life.

Parenthood is a hurdling forward sort of endeavor. I've found myself musing on it's complexities more and more as I've watched my babies morph into toddlers grow into preschoolers and leap into kids totting lunchboxes on their way to school. It seems to me, that with many other things in my life, the goal is to grow closer to. Closer to my husband, closer to my dear friends, closer to my siblings, closer to my dreams, to the Truth, to my identity. But parenthood seems this casting out, this hurdling of a ball of light out into space, watching as two objects that morphed from one slowly spin away from each other.

And there is so much immense beauty that occurs in this spinning away - it's how galaxies are formed, it's how we each have found who we are - by journeying out and away. With parenting, though, I think the key is to keep the light shining so brightly from both spinning spheres that no darkness grows between them.

It's the little things that keep the light shining farther and farther as the spheres keep creating distance between themselves. It's the big smiles when I pick him up from the bus - my smile to him causes his light to grow towards me, and with each one-tooth-missing grin he shoots out the bus window, my light grows towards his, too. It's the kisses I give each night before I go to sleep, when they're far away in dreamworld and their foreheads taste like the sea.  It's the apologies we give each other after a fight - rebuilding a stronger light than the one that shone before. It's the trying and the failing, and the trying yet again, all of us, that sends our light out and makes others light grow towards us.

Perhaps, in some ways, we're all spinning away from each other - every being on the planet. But parenthood shows it clearly - that each moment in life is an active choice of letting go and sending light towards, or letting go and sending no light to follow. For all things must be let go at one point or another, and that which is lost, if it's meant to be found, is sweeter once it is re-found, and so the letting go isn't a loss but an eventual gain.

If we send the light out.

I know this may seem like some rambling of words beyond the tangible realities of each day - but the truth is, the tangible realities of each day are a rambling of activities striving to articulate the things our words fail to. Activities striving to communicate the truths we hold, the dreams we're counting on, the hopes we won't dare whisper in case the utterance of them cheapens them back to an attainable thing easily found and just as easily lost.

I hope to be writing more soon. To share with you, whoever you are, wherever you are. But for now, one of my little spheres is about to spin back into my orbit, and I need to go cast my light and watch to see his - because I hope our lights can always be seen by each other, and want to do what I can now so when the lights get harder to send and to see, we have some from today to guide us.

The bus is coming. I have to go.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Resolution to Droopy Eyes

I had this really beautiful start to a blog written - all about how I don't really 'do' New Year's Resolutions because every day is full of commitments & falling-ever-short attempts to improve, grow, accomplish, relinquish, give up the bad, pursue the good...

I put away Christmas today, it was as melancholy a trip down nostalgia lane as one would expect - especially considering our ornaments are now a menagerie of my childhood, my husband's childhood, and now our children's first smattering of memories. Nothing screams "life is brief, don't blink" quite like putting away ornaments one only sees once a year. Some of those ornaments, now coming near 25-30 years of age, look as if they could be brand new. The ones from this year still seem to glisten wet with factory-fresh paint.

And I had this moment where I realized the only resolution I want to make, and need to make both this New Years and each day morning forward, is to return again to the phrase "that my soul may breathe deeply". It seems such a beautiful phrase, especially in moments when I gently and slowly put away the Ethiopian nativity scene, wrapping the ceramic pieces in tattered shreds of newspaper covered in Amharic - a reminder that times are fleeting, places change, and people truly come and go sometimes as quickly as a breeze. Breathe deeply.

I finished re-packing Christmas and sat down to write a blog all about embracing every moment, letting my soul breathe deeply - a blog about enjoying chocolate chip cookies in all their warm, buttery goodness and about leaving the dirty dishes to pile high while I relish in my children in their last few years of wide-eyed wonder. And as I started this blog, a wet-headed 3 year old ran out, snuggled in pajamas, for yet another bed-time hug. She practically pushed the laptop to the floor as she wheedled her way out of bedtime and into another prolonged mommy-hug, complete with begs for butterfly kisses.

As sweet as this all may sound, the truth is a prolonged mommy-hug/snuggle had already occurred; butterfly kisses had been simultaneously administered to both brother and sister (which, for inquiring minds, does indeed require recipients to engage in a near eskimo kiss). Kind words had been spoken, encouragement for the day behind, and anticipation for the day ahead - still more hugs and was a much longer snuggle than normal. And as I sent them off to bed, and settled into my blogging, I found myself high on the idea of my soul breathing deeply in those moments.

But then the wet-headed interruption, which culminated in 3 year old antics, which culminated in said 3 year old tumbling backwards and sideways off the couch and smacking her head several times on every angle possible of the coffee table on her way to to the floor. And my soul flat out stopped breathing - it started fuming, looking for some way to quench the screaming and rush the soothing so I could return to my blogging about the beauty of breathing deeply. And mercifully, I noticed in the moment - too often I don't. I noticed, and I struggled to resuscitate my soul. To let my mind tell my soul that my arms were designed to hold her when she cries, and my words were meant to heal and not deepen wounds, and I'm blessed because my children run to me when they are hurt, not away.

And as my soul started breathing, just an ever so tiny bit (hardly deeply), I realized why this resolution is the only one I want to make - it's because it is the one that will allow me not to miss the years rushing past; not to merely see them, but to deeply breathe them in. Inhaling every moment, not only the good, has potential to be excruciatingly painful - admitting defeat, or weakness, or injury, or disappointment, or sadness hurts. But maybe, just maybe, breathing them in just as readily as the triumphs, joys, and laughter makes the triumph, joy, and laughter that much sweeter.  And even more significantly, maybe the pain is ultimately softened by lingering remnants of deeply-inhaled good.

Ornaments look new because they essentially are - they each spend less than 1/12 of the year 'breathing'. If I functioned at the same rate, I would have spent 2 years and 5 months of my 29 years of life actually 'breathing'. And I would still look shiny and new.

But, shiny and new isn't my goal; it's to breathe deeply - of all of it. Not to turn from or gag on the challenges, but to accept them with measured breath, an awake mind, and a grateful spirit; knowing they are just as a critical to life as their lighthearted counterparts.

We read The Velveteen Rabbit a few times this holiday season, and if you haven't yet, consider it. The little Rabbit asks the Skin Horse about becoming real:

"what is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin horse. "It's a thing that happens to you...."

"Does it hurt?"

"Sometimes." For he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." 

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit?

"It doesn't happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, expect to people who don't understand." 


The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him. 


I, for one, agree with the Rabbit. But Real doesn't happen from valuing only the evergreen scented breaths of life. And so, for this year, and any more to come, I resolve to not only pursue and relish in the easy-to-see good, but also to live 12/12 of the year,  not to rush through hurt or inconvenience as fast as I can and ultimately - to value loose joints, rubbed off hair, and droopy eyes...and all the breaths that take me there.

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